Williams and the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute have started out by first using 3-D printing to create individual parts of what they have deemed the "bioficial" heart. That piecemeal approach could eventually allow researchers to print and piece together a fully functional heart within a week.
"I took a step back and looked at my colleagues, and said, 'Why don't we build it like a large airplane?'" Williams told LiveScience. "Separate the organ into separate components, figure out the best way to make the components, and then put them together."
But building full-size organs also requires researchers to print human tissue in a way that includes the intricate networks of tiny blood vessels that keep the organs healthy. Williams envisions 3-D printing as an ideal way to make smaller blood vessels - he and his colleagues have already built large blood vessels for transplant use in surgeries using methods other than 3-D printing.
Still, 3-D printers can only do so much bioengineering when working at the tiniest scales. The best printers may only print structures with the size of millimeters, whereas the smallest blood vessels can have a width of just a few microns, Williams explained, where 1 millimeter is equal to 1,000 microns.